Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Arts Funding and Arts/Culture and Public Art and Attractions and Philanthropy

Downtown public art campaign loses funding

October 10, 2009

Downtown workers and visitors have grown accustomed to sharing their sidewalks with sculpture.

The 10 George Rickey pieces that departed after Labor Day made up the city’s fourth major public art exhibit in as many years.

Before Rickey’s quiet kinetic forms, Indianapolis hosted Chakaia Booker’s recycled tire constructions, Julian Opie’s signs, and Tom Otterness’ playful human sculptures.

So what’s next? Well, probably nothing.

“Nobody can see where the money’s going to come from,” said Mindy Taylor Ross, former public art director for the Arts Council of Indianapolis.

The organizations that spearheaded Indy’s public art campaign are crippled for a lack of funding. While other public art efforts are under way in Indianapolis, no one organization has the money to commission an exhibit large enough to fill downtown.

The rotating exhibits were part of a larger effort by former Mayor Bart Peterson to promote cultural tourism.

“George Rickey: An Evolution” earned Indianapolis a mention in Forbes magazine. The series of temporary exhibits even caught the attention of a public art executive in Philadelphia, who wanted to know how little ol’ Naptown pulled it off.

“We had such great momentum,” said Valerie Eickmeier, dean of the Herron School of Art and Design at IUPUI. Eickmeier said she liked that the downtown exhibit was big enough to prompt a “community dialogue.”

“Maybe in a couple years, we can re-establish a program like that,” Eickmeier said.

The Cultural Development Commission, which paid for the $250,000 Rickey exhibit and three previous exhibits, has gone dormant.

The commission had received $12.5 million in grants from the quasi-public Capital Improvement Board and Lilly Endowment since 2002. Neither CIB nor Lilly Endowment continued funding the commission after 2008. The commission, which focused on cultural tourism, partnered with various agencies to manage its projects.

Ross said she left the Arts Council in July because prospects for renewing public art funding in the near future were dim. She’ll work through October as a contractor.

Ross said the rotating exhibits garnered national interest—especially among public art professionals.

“I continue to get inquiries from across the country about how we were able to do it,” she said.

One of the professionals who wanted to hear more about public art in Indianapolis was Penny Balkin Bach, executive director of the Fairmount Park Art Association in Philadelphia, the first private organization dedicated to public art. (Bach, who was out of the country, could not be reached for comment.)

There are several other sources of public art in Indianapolis.

Graduate students in a new public art program at Herron are turning out work that will go on display at various sites around town. Last year, the Indianapolis International Airport opened a terminal that includes $3.89 million in art installations. And the Indianapolis Cultural Trail has its own $2 million budget for public art.

Indy’s reputation for public art is well-established, said Liesel Fenner, public art manager at Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C.

“Indianapolis hasn’t lost its place on the map by any means,” Fenner said. “Everyone’s taking a step back for what hopefully will be a short blip on the horizon.”

The Cultural Trail could emerge as the next source of high-profile work. Fred Wilson, known for provoking discussion about the art world’s treatment of minorities, is making a sculpture that will be placed outside the City-County Building.

Wilson’s work will be based on the freed slave represented in the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. The piece is still under development, so no installation date was available.

The Cultural Trail has commissioned six artists, and plans to announce a seventh later this year or early in 2010, said Ross, who also advises the trail on public art.

The final commission is slated for the trail’s southeast corridor, which is still being planned. Ross suggested the announcement will garner more attention for Indianapolis, saying it’s by a “very famous artist and design firm.”•

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